Time Out New York Project: Issue #720, July 16-22, 2009
Dir. Akira Kurosawa. 1980. N/R. 162mins. In Japanese, with subtitles. Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kenichi Hagiwara.
Kurosawa’s late-career samurai epic is a film of effects, and it opens with a doozy. In a single extended take, the soon-to-be-murdered lord of the Takeda clan, Shingen (Nakadai), shares space and conversation with two “doubles”—his brother Nobukado (Yamazaki) and an unnamed thief (also Nakadai)—both of whom impersonate him as an enemy-deceiving tactic. Even for those with cine-technical know-how, the juxtaposition of the two Nakadais is seamless. Yet there’s something missing: some implicit connection, however subtle, that Kurosawa’s coolly detached eye evades.
This is illustrative of Kagemusha’s unevenness. At worst, the film is an empty vessel that places blind trust in affected stillness and symmetry. But like Nakadai’s thief when he demonstrates his uncanny imitative abilities to Shingen’s coterie, the movie quite often switches on a dime to more deep and meaningful textures.
In the incredible finale, we see only the lead-up to and the aftermath of the Takeda clan’s decimation. The massacre itself is shown mostly through the reactions of the now-exiled thief, who, it’s suggested, is channeling his former master’s spirit…or not. It’s one of the few times Kurosawa’s oblique approach seems fully germane to the story he’s telling, a moment when this mostly hollow and perplexing work achieves some measure of ambiguous clarity.—Keith Uhlich